Updated: Oct 10
In the United States, today is Presidents' Day. Depending on whom you ask, it's a holiday that commemorates the birth and legacy of George Washington and possibly those of Abraham Lincoln and other presidents of the United States.
Americans often hold up Washington and Lincoln as paragons of what it means to be American. I love my country with all my heart, and I deeply admire and respect both of these men for what they did for the US.
The older I get, though, the more I realize that people are complicated. Famous people are no exception. If anything, they often seem more complicated than ordinary people! Washington fought for freedom yet owned slaves. Lincoln hated slavery but held many of the racist attitudes common among White Americans of his time.
I think it's human nature to want to simplify things into clearly defined categories: good or bad, moral or immoral, admirable or despicable. But life doesn't usually work like that. Events and, especially, people don't fit neatly into boxes. This is true regardless of whether we're writing about historical figures, contemporary celebrities, or fictional characters.
It also seems popular these days to try to knock people down a peg, especially if they've been revered in the past. Whereas past generations may have put Washington and Lincoln on pedestals, some recent writers and museum curators have been playing up these men's dirty laundry, as if to say that Washington's and Lincoln's good deeds do or should matter little in the face of their failings.
So how do we reconcile the opposing parts of the people we write about? There is no simple answer. But I can offer a few tips:
Before you start to write, take an honest look at the whole person/character. List everything—good, bad, and neutral—that you know about them. Mark the items that hold particular weight for you, your audience, and both.
Ponder what you've listed. What overall picture of this person or character emerges? Pay attention to what your heart tells you—it often knows or senses things that the brain doesn't.
Be cautious of judging the past through the lens of the present. Education levels, common knowledge, legal standards, and moral values differ widely across history and situations. How can we say that people of a given time "should have known better" if few or no contemporaries held and taught those "better" views? As an analogy, most people would agree that it's not okay for either a preschooler or a teenager to steal a candy bar from a gas station. But does the preschooler really deserve the same consequences as the older, more experienced, and more educated teenager?
Present the evidence and let the audience judge for themselves. Granted, it's impossible to be completely unbiased in our writing. However, it's also currently popular to not-so-subtly tell audiences what they "should" think about a subject, event, or person. But that's dangerous, especially with younger audiences. A truly free society needs everyone to be able to reason and judge for themselves, not simply believe whatever someone tells them. And if we can't persuade an educated, thinking audience by relying solely on the merits of our arguments, are those arguments really worth paying attention to?
P.S. Is your writing missing something? Click here to book a free discovery call so I can help you figure out what you need!
(Thanks to Stephen Walker for sharing their work on Unsplash.)